In response to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the College hosted the first of a series of virtual conversations on the current state of our democracy on Thursday. The webinar featured Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University Timothy Snyder and was moderated by Associate Professor of History Page Herrlinger.
The conversation began with opening remarks from the guest speaker. Snyder took this as an opportunity to establish a wider context for the events of January 6, beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s very easy, in the rush of the events of January 6, to yield to temptation and think all political things have immediate political causes and all ideological utterances have ideological sources,” Snyder said. “But I do think we have to keep in mind the fact that the United States had been in a terrible state of health for the previous year. [Coronavirus] and the falsehoods told around it and the controversies it caused had something to do with the mood by early 2021.”
He also stressed the importance of understanding the history of race in America. Going back to the failure of Reconstruction and the Compromise of 1877, the consistent disenfranchisement of Black Americans can be traced from the explicit laws of the Reconstruction Era to the voter suppression tactics of the 21st century.
Snyder also spoke about the racial implications of former President Donald Trump’s accusations of fraud in the 2020 election.
“This whole idea of fraud in our country is deeply racialized,” Snyder said. “It goes all the way back to post-Reconstruction. It goes deep to the question of what democracy means, of who gets to be represented.”
The big lie of American history, as Snyder put it, is that Black people are not human beings. This lie is what makes Mr. Trump’s big lie—that he won the presidency—possible.
“What he’s really saying is, I would have won the election if you don’t count all of those ‘fraudulent’ ballots,” Snyder said. “Which is to say, ‘I would have won the election if you don’t count those Black people.’”
However, the person who creates a “big lie” is not necessarily the person who rides it to power. While Trump originally told the lie about alleged fraud, it did not keep him in office. Still, the lie continues, in large part because other people in his political party continue to tell it.
“The lie has shaped the way that people see the world … and created its own alternative reality in which people can keep living,” said Snyder.
The emphasis on American society’s collective need to rededicate itself to fact was a highlight throughout the conversation.
Snyder’s comments were followed by questions from the audience that were chosen and posed by Herrlinger. Several pertained to news consumption and illuminated the discrepancies between the information different people find on the Internet. Snyder recommended subscribing to a print newspaper in order to avoid this issue altogether.
“[Social media algorithms] get your confidence by telling you the stuff it figured out that you want to hear, and then drawing you further in there to keep your eyeballs on the screen so privatizers can make money,” Snyder said. “This is the opposite of being informed.”
“I thought that the talk was incredibly informative,” Alex Arndt ’23 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “As a history major, it provided me with a tangible framework to understand why we have arrived at the state that we’re in, with the insurrection on January 6. [Snyder] did a fantastic job in addressing and prescribing what we need to do to move forward.”
In the final moments of the talk, Snyder answered a question about how to avoid such a catastrophe in the future.
“History is about things that can happen because they did happen,” Snyder said. “I think one of the things you can do to look forward is to pay more attention to the past.”